Authors: Lisa Kleypas
Special thanks to Mary Jo Putney
for her kindness and generosity to me
To Griffin, with love,
from your mother
he music of the May Day celebration filled the air, drifting from the village to the honey-colored castle on the lake. One of the occupants of the castle, Damon, Lord Savage, the Marquess of Savage, wandered along the road to the village, lured by the music in spite of himself.
He was not a frivolous man, nor did he enjoy taking part in large gatherings. For the past two years Damon had devoted his life to rebuilding his family's fortunes, and looking after his younger brother and ailing father. The responsibilities he had assumed did not allow time for entertainment. He was drawn to the village by a mixture of curiosity and loneliness, and the need to be out of doors.
A multitude of girls in white dresses were gilded in the mauve light of sunset as they danced around a tree that had been hung with ribbons and garlands. Laughing, drinking, and singing, the villagers gathered to celebrate the pagan festivities of May Day, which would continue through the night.
Unobtrusively Damon stood at the edge of the crowd while the evening darkened. Torches and lamps were lit, throwing flickering shadows across the grass. Although he had seen the May Day ritual many times before, Damon was still struck by the picturesque sight of the maidens twining long streamers around the maypole. Gracefully they skipped in a circle, their hair crowned with circlets of flowers, their white skirts billowing around stocking-clad legs.
Like the other men present, Damon took note of the particularly attractive girls. It had been a long time since he'd had a woman. Later, he had promised himself, he would take a mistress and enjoy the pleasures he had forsworn, but for now there was too much to be done. If only he could rid himself of the inconvenient desire for a woman's touch, for the soft perfume of feminine skin, and the feel of slender arms wrapped around him. During the days he was too busy to dwell on the subject, but at night…
Damon's chest moved in a taut sigh. He watched the revelry for a few minutes more, conscious of an emptiness inside that refused to abate. Deciding to return to the castle and indulge in a large snifter of brandy, he turned away. All of a sudden, his attention was caught by a group of strolling players that had arrived to take part in the festivities. Raising their voices in boisterous song, they joined the crowd and clapped their hands in time to the music.
A few friendly villagers encouraged the newcomers to join the dancing maidens. Two of the women complied, but the third, a slender girl with blond braids pinned to the crown of her head, shook her head adamantly. The revelers persisted in spite of her refusal, pulling and pushing the girl toward the maypole. Someone placed a circlet of flowers on her head, making her laugh reluctantly as she followed the other maidens in their path around the garlanded tree.
Damon watched the girl in fascination. She was easily distinguishable by her dark dress and the grace with which she moved. She seemed like a sprite who had suddenly appeared from the forest and would vanish at any moment. It was strange, the effect she had on him, his body turning hollow with yearning, every sense focused on the sight of her and the high, sweet sound of her laughter.
She's just a girl
, he told himself silently, trying in vain to rid himself of the urges that consumed him.
She's a girl like any other
. But that wasn't true. The strength of his reaction to her alarmed and electrified him. He would give all he owned for one night with her. He was never vulnerable to sudden impulses, had never been ruled by anything but logic and reason. It seemed that all the recklessness he had never allowed himself to feel had come over him in one moment.
Damon moved around the edge of the crowd with the deliberateness of a predator, his gaze locked on her. He wasn't certain what he intended to do, only that he had to be near her. She was dancing faster now, driven by the music and the impatient tugging of the girls who had joined hands with her. Laughing, gasping for breath, she managed to break free of the circle and stumble away. The garland of flowers flew from her head and landed near Damon's feet. He bent and closed his fingers around it, unconsciously crushing some of the fragrant petals.
Blotting her perspiring face with her sleeve, the girl wandered away from the crowd. Damon followed her, his heart driving hard in his chest. Although he didn't make a sound, she must have sensed his presence. She stopped and turned to face him, while the May Day crowd continued its revelry. Damon ventured closer to her, stopping a scant foot away from her.
“I believe this is yours,” he said thickly. She looked up at him, the color of her eyes indistinguishable in the darkness. The hint of a smile appeared on the tender curve of her lips.
“Thank you.” She reached for the flowers, her cool fingers brushing his for a split second. He felt the shock of it all through his body.
“Who are you?” he blurted out.
The girl laughed, perhaps as startled by his bluntness as he was. “I'm no one of importance. Just an actress with a traveling company.” She hesitated briefly. “And you?”
He remained silent, unable to answer while the heady scents of crushed flowers, wine, and perspiration filled his nostrils and made his blood rush through his veins. He wanted to tear her away from the crowd and carry her to the woods, bear her down to the damp leaf-covered ground…He wanted to press his mouth against her pale skin, and unbraid her hair until it rippled between his fingers.
The girl regarded him curiously, tilting her head to the side. “You must be from the castle,” she said. All at once her expression became wary. “Are you one of the Savages?”
Damon shook his head, denying who he was, wanting to detach himself from everything in his past and future. “I'm a visitor here,” he said, his voice slightly hoarse. “Just as you are.”
She looked skeptical but seemed to relax.
“Where are you from?” Damon asked.
Her teeth flashed in the darkness. He had never seen anything as beautiful as her smile. “I don't choose to think about my past.” She pushed back the stray locks of gleaming blond hair from, her forehead. “Why did you come outside, sir? Was it to take the air or watch the dancing?”
“To find you.”
A quiet laugh escaped her, and she tensed like a bird ready to take flight. Sensing that she was about to slip away, Damon found himself acting without conscious thought. His hands came to either side of her head, holding her securely in spite of her startled protest. “Let me,” he whispered, a tremor running through his fingers as they pressed against her downy cheeks. He pressed his mouth to hers, and she became very still. Her breath rushed hot and fast on his skin, while the taste of her spilled through his senses in an intoxicating rush. He felt her response, and the moment was suspended in time, magical, unlike anything that had ever happened to him before.
She turned her face away, making a sound of confusion. Damon was intensely aware of the velvety touch of her cheek against his, the nearness of her body. They were both silent, motionless as they drank in the sensation of standing close together.
“Good night,” she whispered.
“Don't go,” he said, but she strode away, seeming to melt into the crowd.
Although Damon could have followed, he chose not to. It seemed impossible that such a woman could be real. In a way, he didn't want her to be. Let her remain a fantasy, an image he could keep for the rest of his life, untouched by the unpleasant realities that crowded his days. He left the May Day celebration, unable to rid his mind of the sudden intuition that somehow, someday…they would meet again.
he was late. Julia quickened her pace, trying to keep her skirts from dragging along the muddy ground, and at the same time shield her face from the persistent drizzle of cold autumn rain. If she didn't reach the Capital Theatre soon, her hair and clothes would be soaked. “My audition,” she muttered despairingly, shouldering past the people on the broken, slippery sidewalk. A once-jaunty yellow feather drooped down from the brim of her small hat, and she pushed it back impatiently.
Today was one of the most important days of her life. If all went well, she might become part of the most successful acting company in England. However, if she failed to impress Logan Scott with her talents, she would have to return to the grimy little Daly Theatre in the Strand. The manager there, Mr. Bickerston, regarded the actresses as if they were prostitutes, turning a profit for himself by arranging for them to meet wealthy men. He was furious with Julia for refusing to associate with a lecherous old baron who had been willing to pay an exorbitant fee for the privilege of bedding her. “You'll obey my rules,” Bickerston had spat at her, “or you're no longer in the company. The next time I find a man for you, you'll accept him or be damned!”
To make matters worse, Bickerston had a gambling problem, and he often couldn't pay the actors the full amount of their salaries. If Julia didn't make money soon, she wouldn't be able to afford the terrace room she had rented. And she couldn't resort to what the other actresses did, selling their sexual favors to supplement their income. For her that would never be a choice, even if she starved.
Julia sighed, her skin crawling at the thought of returning to the Strand. She had to find a better place to work. Tightening her grip on the damp sheaf of paper in her arms, she lowered her head and walked faster. All of a sudden she rammed into a hard object that nearly sent her sprawling backward. The stack of papers cascaded from her arms. Only a man's quick grab at her shoulders kept her from falling onto the muddy pavement.
“Are you all right, miss?” the man inquired, steadying her.
Julia bent to scoop up her sodden papers. To her dismay, the hem of her skirts dragged through a dirty puddle. “You should watch where you're going,” she exclaimed.
“I might say the same to you, miss.” The man's voice was as dry and rich as a glass of red wine. He helped her to retrieve the fallen papers, pausing to glance at them.
Julia took them from him before he had the chance to read anything. “I'm on my way to an audition,” she said crisply. “I'm very late.” She began to walk past him, but he stopped her with a light touch on her shoulder.
“Which theater do you want?”
She looked up at him, blinking as a rain-laced breeze swept over her face. He was tall and well-built, his wide shoulders covered with a heavy black coat. Through the veil of rain dripping from the brim of his dark hat, she could see blunt, attractive features and a pair of intense blue eyes. “I'm trying to find the Capital,” she said.
“You've reached it.” He indicated a nearby doorway. “That leads to the greenroom, where auditions are usually held.”
“How do you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
A smile pulled at the corner of his wide, mobile mouth. “I'm a member of the company.”
“Oh.” She was taken aback, and a touch envious. Lucky, lucky man, to be a part of such a prestigious group.
His smile remained as he contemplated her. “If you wish, I'll show you the way.”
Julia nodded and cautiously preceded him through the doorway into a quiet, dim hallway. Relieved to be out of the rain, she brushed at her damp skirts and tried to straighten them. Politely her companion waited until she removed her dripping hat and cloak, and he took them from her. “We'll leave these in a spare dressing room to dry,” he said, opening a door and hanging the articles on the large brass hooks affixed to the wall. He removed his own hat and coat, and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair, trying to bring order to the short, wavy mass.
Julia smoothed her own dark hair, wishing she had a mirror to help restore her appearance.
“You look well enough,” the man said, as if reading her thoughts.
For the first time, Julia smiled at him tentatively. “I was hoping for something better than that.”
He shrugged. “Your looks won't matter as much as your acting skill.”
“Yes, of course.” She followed him down the hallway, past dressing rooms, offices, carpenter shops, and wardrobe rooms. The Capital Theatre was a large place, comprised of a main theater with four satellite buildings. It had never been regarded in the same light as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane until Logan Scott had taken over its management. Under his brilliant direction, and driven by his powerful performances, the Capital had become one of the most respected theaters in town.
Although Logan Scott was still a young man in his twenties, he had already achieved a legendary status in the theater. The thought of actually meeting him made Julia's stomach flip-flop violently. If he decided that she had no talent, her career would be finished.
“How long have you been with the company?” Julia asked, her nervousness increasing as they went deeper into the building. They passed workmen in the hallway, and turned a corner where actors' voices could be heard in the practice rooms.
“Since it began four years ago,” her companion replied.
“You're very fortunate to be working with Mr. Scott.”
“Am I?” he asked dryly. “He has quite a temper, you know.”
“That can be forgiven in such a brilliant artist. Mr. Scott is the greatest actor in England. Everyone calls him the new David Garrick.”
A sardonic snort escaped him. “I think that's an overstatement.”
Julia glanced at him in surprise. “Aren't you an admirer of Mr. Scott?”
“Occasionally, yes. I just don't happen to think he's comparable to Garrick. Not yet, at any rate.”
Julia shrugged. “Since I've never actually seen him on stage, I'll have to reserve judgment.”
They reached the greenroom, which was not actually green, and Julia clutched her papers tightly as she stepped inside. The large cream-painted room was filled with well-worn chairs and settees, battered tables, and a tray piled with bread, smoked meats, and cheese. Two women were seated in the corner, while a girl and a young man were rehearsing a scene on the other side of the room, pausing to laugh at some bit of awkward choreography. A portly older gentleman sat off to one side, reading a play and mouthing the lines silently.
At the sight of the new arrivals, they all looked up. Immediately they came forward to Julia's companion, crowding around him until Julia was nudged aside. He fended off a torrent of questions and demands with upraised hands. “Later,” he informed them. “For now I have some business to attend to—an audition.”
Julia stared at him with wide eyes. Now that they were in the well-lit greenroom, she could see many of the details about him that had escaped her before. He was dressed in expensive, perfectly tailored clothes: dark trousers, a rich emerald vest, and a black silk cravat. She had never seen such beautiful hair on a man, unruly waves of brown that gleamed with burnished mahogany highlights. It was cut short and brushed back, but it had a rumpled appearance that practically begged a woman to smooth it.
His air of authority was unmistakable. That, and the compellingly deep timbre of his voice, and most of all those riveting blue eyes, convinced Julia of who he was. She felt her heart plummet to her feet, and she knew the color had left her cheeks. “You're Logan Scott,” she murmured. “You should have told me.”
His eyes gleamed with mischief and challenge. “You should have asked.”
She nodded in rueful acknowledgment, wondering if she had managed to ruin all chances of creating a favorable impression.
“And your name is…?” he prompted.
“Mrs. Jessica Wentworth,” Julia said, using the stage name she had invented for herself. The half-dozen people in the room stared at her curiously. She wanted to crawl away into some dark corner and hide.
“Very well, Mrs. Wentworth,” Logan Scott said softly. “Let's find out what you're capable of.” He held out one broad hand for the audition pieces she had brought, and casually riffled through the damp pages. “I see you've prepared a scene from
. Excellent. We had a long run of that play last season. Charles is quite familiar with it.” He gestured to the tall blond man a few feet away. “Would you mind taking the part of Lord Aversley, Charles?”
The young man obeyed with alacrity.
Scott seated himself comfortably, and the others followed suit. “If you don't mind, Mrs. Wentworth, we'll allow the other members of the company to watch your audition.”
Julia did mind, actually. It was much more difficult to play a scene in front of a very small group than a large one. And these people were
, the most critical audience of all. They would mock her for wanting to be part of the Capital—they would see immediately that she'd had no training, and precious little experience. But she had come too far to retreat now. Julia forced a smile to her face, and unlocked her knees in order to join the young man at the center of the greenroom.
In appearance, Charles was not the ideal Lord Aversley—he seemed rather too bland and handsome for the role of a consummate villain. On the other hand, he possessed an air of self-assurance that impressed Julia. She had no doubt of his ability to play convincingly any character he chose.
“Mathilda is a tricky role to choose for an audition,” Logan Scott remarked. It was unclear if he was speaking to Julia or the others in the room. “The part of a long-suffering heroine is usually tiresome.”
Julia nodded gravely, staring at his imperturbable face. “I shall endeavor not to be boring, Mr. Scott.”
There was a twitch of amusement at the corners of his mouth. “Begin when you're ready, Mrs. Wentworth.”
Julia nodded and stared at the floor in concentration, preparing herself for the scene. The story of
had brought fame to its author, S. R. Fielding, two short years ago, first in the form of a novel and then as a smashing success on the stage. The public was fascinated by the tale of an ambitious country girl's descent into prostitution, and her eventual redemption. The scene Julia had chosen was a pivotal one in which Mathilda, still a virgin, was seduced by the diabolical rake Lord Aversley.
Julia glanced up at Charles, and she began to speak in a rough country accent. He responded in the pure, aristocratic tones of Aversley. With each line, Julia felt herself sinking deeper into the character. She became half-flirtatious, half-fearful, advancing and retreating as Aversley slowly pursued her around the room.
Logan concentrated on the girl, all his senses arrested. Although she was a small woman, a little below average height, her slenderness gave her the illusion of being taller. With her ash-blond hair, brilliant blue-green eyes and delicately angled face, she was too pretty, actually. It was rare to find a woman of such unassailable beauty who was also a proficient actress. Truly beautiful women never seemed to have the emotional depth or drive to play anything other than an ingenue.
Less than a minute after the scene had begun, Logan realized that Jessica Wentworth had a remarkable presence, the kind that made the hair on the back of his neck prickle. She had the gift of transforming herself into the character she played. He knew without vanity that he possessed the same ability, and that on occasion one or two of the players in the company could achieve it. But such a talent was rare in a girl who couldn't be more than twenty.
Jessica Wentworth interpreted the character of Mathilda with seeming effortlessness. She was strangely touching, with a child's curiosity and a pitiable fascination for the man who would ruin her. And there was a thread of calculation in her manner, a smart and subtle understanding of Mathilda's misguided ambition to have a wealthy man in her power. Logan shook his head slightly, appreciating the fluid quality of her performance. He glanced at the other actors and saw that they were staring raptly at the newcomer.
Julia began to relax and enjoy the pleasure of working with an actor as accomplished as Charles. He made it surprisingly easy for her to believe he was Aversley as he sneered and stalked her from one side of the room to the other. However, she faltered and stopped in dismay as she heard Logan Scott's voice cut through the exchange of dialogue.
“I'll finish the scene with her, Charles.”
Startled, Julia watched as Scott stood from his chair and approached her. He motioned for Charles to sit down, and assumed his place. Julia was momentarily transfixed by the change that came over Logan Scott, the sudden crackling tension in the room, the flicker of blue fire in his eyes. He smiled at her slightly, and began speaking as Aversley. It was thrilling. Julia wanted to take a seat and just listen to the suppressed power of his voice. He gave the character of Aversley a catlike quality, a preposterous self-importance, and an unexpected hint of bitterness.
Adjusting the pitch of her performance to his, Julia responded as Mathilda, and for a few moment it was easy to lose herself in the role, forgetting who she was. Aversley toyed with Mathilda, lunged for her, promising pleasure and torment with his silky voice and his hot blue eyes. He gripped her arms, and Julia was startled by the genuine feeling of being trapped. She tried to wrench away, but he held her near, and spoke close to her mouth until his warm breath fanned her lips.
They were at the part of the play when Aversley kissed Mathilda and carried her offstage, leaving the rest of the action to the audience's imagination. Julia tensed in Logan Scott's arms, feeling utterly possessed by his hard grip. She thought briefly that he would kiss her, and was relieved when a mask dropped over his face and he released her carefully. The scene was over.
The others in the room were silent. Julia felt their gazes on her as she stepped back and rubbed the places on her arms where Scott had held her.
Noting her action, Scott turned toward her with an arched brow. “Did I hurt you?” he inquired with mild surprise.